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Sunday, 01 December 2019 23:31

Cold Case Hammarskjold

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Jim DiEugenio reviews Mad Brugger’s new film Cold Case Hammarskjold in light of the political struggle in Congo and the recurrence of European imperialism there.


On the night of September 17, 1961, Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold boarded his plane, the Albertina, in Leopoldville. He had authorized a mission that was unprecedented in UN history. The UN had committed troops to put down a rebellion against the new African nation of Congo by a breakaway state called Katanga.

Hammarskjold was trying to arrange a cease fire between the UN forces and the Katangese mercenaries. He was to land at the Ndola airport in Northern Rhodesia, a British protectorate. His plane crashed several miles from the airport. In addition to the Secretary General, 14 other people perished. There was a survivor who died six days later. Although the first local inquiry, done by British colonial authorities, blamed the crash on pilot error, there have always been suspicions of foul play. A number of witnesses saw a large fireball explode in the sky around the airport. The survivor, Harold Julien, said the plane was in flames before it crashed. More than one witness said they had seen a smaller plane behind and above the Albertina. But in spite of these observations, the UN’s inquiry was inconclusive.

In 2011, English scholar Susan Williams wrote a book entitled Who Killed Hammarskjold? It contained both the older evidence combined with new evidence, which she had traveled the world tracking down. This included two servicemen, one Swedish and one American, who heard recorded messages saying that the second plane was in hot and hostile pursuit of the Albertina. She also wrote that witnesses saw land rovers driving to the scene of the crash within an hour; other witnesses said they had reported the crash much earlier than the official time of discovery, which was 3 PM the next day. These would be indications that:

  1. There was an attempt to shoot down the Albertina
  2. That there was a group of men on the ground who got to the crime scene before its official discovery
  3. There was a deliberate delay in getting rescuers to the scene

But, perhaps, the most memorable detail revealed about the crime scene in the Williams book was this: photos showed an unidentifiable playing card stuffed into the dead Hammarskjold’s ruffled tie. A witness said it was the ace of spades. The ramifications of that picture are quite malevolent.

Williams’ book was so well sourced and provocative that it caused a new UN investigation. That inquiry has stretched on over several years, because it has been stymied by the lack of cooperation from countries like South Africa, England and the USA. But the renewed interest in Hammarskjold’s death has also inspired a new film titled Cold Case Hammarskjold. The documentary was made by Danish director Mads Brugger in consultation with Swedish investigator Goran Bjorkdahl.

Brugger begins his film with an animated depiction of the crash. He then cuts to a hotel room, where he is dressed in white dictating the story of his search. Through that narrative device, plus the use of chapter headings, he filters his six-year search for the facts. After giving us some background on Hammarskjold’s struggle to make the UN an effective advocate for nations emerging from colonialism, we join in Bjorkdahl’s field investigation. Not only did the witnesses see the plane in flames before it hit the ground, but they said the lights outside the airport went dim after the crash. Further, the air traffic controller’s notes were lost and then reconstructed two days later. In an interview with the first civilian photographer on the scene, he describes an oddity that Williams also noted: all the bodies were burned and charred—except Hammarskjold’s. Was Hammarskjold thrown from the plane on impact? We also learn that the Albertina was unguarded for two hours before it took off for Ndola. This had fostered suspicion that a bomb could have been planted on board.

The other suspected method of murder was fire from the following plane. The film investigates this aspect and focuses on the Belgian mercenary pilot Jan Van Risseghem, nicknamed the Lone Ranger. Through declassified documents, we learn he had been suspected of causing the crash by the American ambassador to Congo, Edmund Gullion. But the film ends up ruling this out when they learn through scientific testing of a metal plate from the Albertina that the holes were not made by bullets.

This leads Brugger and Bjorkdahl to investigate a fascinating lead that was first uncovered by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in 1998. These were documents outlining a plot to kill Hammarskjold codenamed Operation Celeste. The film shows the press conference at which these documents were first announced to the public by Bishop Desmond Tutu. For her book, Susan Williams wrote two chapters about the documents. The papers originated in 1961 from an agency called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR). The TRC revealed that they were discovered in a file related to the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, the leader of the South African Communist Party. The TRC did not do any extensive investigation or forensic testing to affirm the validity of the documents. But to say they were explosive is understating what was in them. In sum, they described a plot in which Hammarskjold would be removed by means of some kind of air accident, which SAIMR would be free to devise on its own. The sanction for the SAIMR operation was through both British intelligence and Director Allen Dulles of the CIA. The directions call for SAIMR to infiltrate the airport and that Hammarskjold’s assassination be pulled off more efficiently than the murder of revolutionary Congo leader Patrice Lumumba—which the CIA also had a significant role in. Operation Celeste consisted of two main techniques: planting a bomb on the Albertina and having a fighter plane follow as a fallback, if the bomb did not explode. The SAIMR after-action report stated that the bomb did not go off upon takeoff, therefore the fighter plane followed. But the bomb did go off before the landing. The fighter pilot is not necessarily Van Risseghem. Williams thought it could refer to Hubert F. Julian, an African-American mercenary pilot. Julian appears to have been in the employ of Moise Tshombe, leader of the breakaway state of Katanga, which the UN had been trying to reincorporate back into Congo.

At the time of their exposure, the SAIMR documents were attacked by both British intelligence and the CIA as being planted forgeries, perhaps by the KGB. This film takes the exploration of SAIMR further than Williams did. Williams had an unnamed source talk about the group. Brugger has two sources who agreed to be filmed. In addition, he found the family of a former member of SAIMR who was murdered. The chief witness in the film is a former SAIMR operative named Alexander Jones. Jones said that, while he was employed by SAIMR, he saw three pictures from the Hammarskjold crash site. One of the men he saw in the photo was Keith Maxwell, an action operative of SAIMR. The other person he recognized was an agent codenamed Congo Red, also involved in the group. Were these men in the land rovers that the witnesses saw driving toward the crash site? Were they driving to the scene to see if anyone survived the crash? And was their function to do away with the survivors?

Maxwell later revealed a roman-à-clef manuscript to the mother of the young girl, Dagmar Fiels, that Jones believes SAIMR assassinated. In that manuscript, he disguises the name of the supervisor of the plot as a man named “Wagman”. Both Williams and Brugger understand this to be a nom de plume for SAIMR operative Bob Wagner. The information in the SAIMR documents closely aligns with the manuscript. The film reveals the only picture ever discovered of Maxwell.

Although Cold Case Hammarskjold does attempt to place the murder of Hammarskjold in a wider political context, my one serious reservation about the picture is that I wish it would have done more in that aspect. The political struggle in Congo went on for approximately five years, beginning with the Eisenhower administration, going through the Kennedy administration and concluding with LBJ. It was no less than an epochal conflict that impacted the entire continent. The film does not deal, at all, with the murder of Patrice Lumumba, yet that is why Hammarskjold was there. Lumumba had asked the UN to help him get the Belgian imperialists out of his newly independent country. Belgium had brutally colonized Congo for decades. They had promised to set the country free. But they had now returned by dropping paratroopers back in country on the pretext of restoring order. Hammarskjold was trying to keep the country independent from a recurrence of European colonialism or imperialism. President John Kennedy was also quite sympathetic to what Hammarskjold was attempting to do. The murders of these three men—Lumumba, Hammarskjold, and Kennedy—caused the reversion of Congo back to European imperialism. Jonathan Kwitny commented on this in his book Endless Enemies:

The democratic experiment had no example in Africa and badly needed one. So perhaps the sorriest, and the most unnecessary, blight on the record of this new era, is that the precedent for it all, the very first coup in post-colonial African history, the very first political assassination, and the very first junking of a legally constituted democratic system, all took place in a major country and were all instigated by the United States of America. (p. 75)

The death of Lumumba had been ordered by Dwight Eisenhower at an NSC meeting and then initiated by Allen Dulles. (John Newman, Countdown to Darkness, p. 227) Therefore, in that aspect, the SAIMR documents concerning Dulles’ putative role in Hammarskjold’s death are consistent with the discoveries of the Church Committee. Hammarskjold's vision of the UN was as a world congress where the poor, nascent and weaker nations would have a platform to speak out against the rich, powerful and established ones. What SAIMR seems to have been was a kind of paramilitary, off the shelf, secret commando group. One which had covert support and sanction from not just South Africa, but also the USA and England. In other words, SAIMR was doing dirty work for both colonial and white supremacy interests. Once Hammarskjold was killed, Kennedy did his best to carry out what he perceived as the UN Secretary General’s aims. It was a creditable effort. But after Kennedy’s assassination, the whole enterprise went south in a hurry. Seeing the writing on the wall, the United Nations pulled out. Then President Johnson and the CIA decided to neutralize the last of Lumumba’s followers. This resulted in Josef Mobutu becoming the strong man backed by imperial interests, which is what Hammarskjold was trying to prevent.

As President Kennedy said of him, “Dag Hammarskjold was the greatest statesman of the 20th century.” As the film states, the history of modern Africa might have been different had he survived. Thanks to Williams, and now Brugger, we are a lot closer to what actually happened to this admirable statesman. With their work, no one can call his death a plane accident again.

Last modified on Monday, 02 December 2019 00:14
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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